The Impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926)
“All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation…You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.” ― Gertrude Stein
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event”. Although this is what is known today about PTSD, it was not officially classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association (APA) until 1980. Yet PTSD was a side effect of combat trauma long before. Though there was a vague term, “shell shock,” expected to explain all the psychological effects of war, it was not a diagnosis; it was a nickname. In Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, the characters are part of a “lost generation” in the early twentieth century, proving that the after-effect of war can make people try to escape the reality of things, which in turn leads to misbehavior.
During World War I, the psychological distress of soldiers was a result of concussions caused by the impact of shells; this effect was believed to disturb the brain and cause “shell shock.” According to the American Psychological Association, symptoms of “shell shock” included “fatigue, tremor, confusion, nightmares and impaired sight and hearing”. Additionally, it often served as the go-to diagnosis when a soldier was unable to function, and no obvious cause could be identified. Until 1980, when the APA added PTSD to the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). During many years of research, the DSM-III criteria was revised several times. As a result, scientists and doctors now know a great deal about PTSD. For example, one is “most likely to develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, [but] it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. There are four main types of symptoms: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, or changes in emotional reactions”. The significant change introduced by the concept of PTSD was that the cause of misbehavior was linked to a traumatic event, rather than an inherent individual weakness. Therefore, the key to understanding the causes and effects of PTSD was the concept of trauma.
In the novel, The Sun Also Rises, lots of characters are part of what is known as “The Lost Generation”. This term, coined by renowned American writer Gertrude Stein, means that the generation of men who took part in World War I is forever deprived of moral, emotional, spiritual and physical values. In the years following the war – the time when the book is set – many Americans were captivated by Paris. Writers, in particular, found greater artistic freedom there and a large circle of like-minded people who incidentally carried the same wounds from the war. This generation emerged from the war, spending most of the 1920’s taking advantage of every available opportunity to eat and drink its fill in order to compensate for the losses they had suffered. With no ideals to rely on, the “Lost Generation” lived an aimless, immoral existence, lacking true emotions.
Mike Campbell, Lady Brett Ashley’s fiancé, is a constantly drunk, short-tempered, Scottish war veteran. He has become bankrupt through his business associations with “false friends”. Furthermore, his insecurity regarding Brett’s sexual promiscuity provokes outbreaks of self-pity and anger that cause him to attack others. Additionally, Mike is obscene and his behavior is usually nothing short of inappropriate, especially when he is drunk: ‘”I’m rather drunk,” Mike said. “I think I’ll stay rather drunk. This is all awfully amusing, but it’s not too pleasant for me. It’s not too pleasant for me (205)”’. Eventually, Mike admitted that he is perfectly aware of his alcohol abuse and of its psychological reasons, yet he consciously chooses not to change anything. However, unlike Bill and Jake, Mike never truly moved past the war. Occasionally, he describes his adventures as a ridiculously unskilled soldier. Additionally, Mike says: “What times we had. How I wish those dear days were back (139)”. His questionable, sarcastic wish is quite telling. Maybe he wishes war had never ended, because it gave him a sense of purpose that he is lacking at the time of the novel. Mike is due to obtain a large inheritance one day. He has no focus in life nor any apparent employment and lives off the money his family gives him, as well as the generosity of his friends. Thus, until he gets his inheritance, he is aimlessly drifting through life, with the sudden disappearance of any sense of purpose, coinciding with the end of the war.
Lady Brett Ashley is a strong, largely independent woman. She exerts great power over men around her, as her charisma and beauty charms everyone she meets. Mike even compares her to Circe – a famous seductress in Greek mythology, who would lure men to her island and turn them into pigs – by saying that “she turns men into swine (148)”. Furthermore, she does not commit to any one man, which is probably the ultimate independence. As as a result, all of the male characters in the novel are in love with her, to various degrees. She is waiting to get divorced from the Count. Yet she is engaged to Mike, in love with Jake, has slept with Cohn, and is infatuated with Romeo. Brett is not old-fashioned at all: she has an admitted taste for parties, is unapologetically sexual and wildly promiscuous. Just like Jake and Mike, Brett is also a war veteran. Though she did not see combat, Brett served in a military hospital, an experience that was undoubtedly just as disturbing as that of male characters. Although she seems completely independent, she is still very unsatisfied with her life. She frequently complains to Jake about how aimless her life is: “I told the driver to go to the Parc Montsouris, and got in, and slammed the door. Brett was leaning back in the corner, her eyes closed. I sat beside her. The cab started with a jerk.
“Oh, darling, I’ve been so miserable,” Brett said. (32)”
War shaped Jake and his friends. In a similar fashion, it also played an essential part in forming Brett’s character. During the war, her true love died of dysentery. Her following actions, especially regarding men, can be interpreted as a desperate, subconscious search for this first love. Brett’s personal search represents the search that preoccupies the entire “Lost Generation”, looking for shattered pre-war values: love and romance.
Jake Barnes, the protagonist and narrator of The Sun Also Rises, is a young American expatriate who works in a newspaper office in Paris. He served in World War I and was injured while fighting in Italy. Although he does not directly say so, there are many moments in the novel when Jake implies that he is impotent as a result of his injury. Brett and Jake developed a relationship while in the war hospital, and they love each other. However, because of his physical condition and because Brett loves sex more than she loves Jake, they cannot be together since he will never be enough to satisfy her. Therefore Jake must sit back and watch her have affairs and relationships with other men. Just like his friends, he spends his days and nights living irresponsibly and drinking heavily. Jake’s physical ailment has psychological consequences as well. For example, he seems quite insecure about his own masculinity and is hostile towards Robert Cohn, because of his own feelings of inadequacy. Furthermore, a part of Jake’s character is a typical representation of the “Lost Generation”. Although he seems to be just like Mike and Brett, wandering through Paris, bar-hopping to dull his pain with alcohol, he is also quite different from other characters in the novel: he possesses an authentic passion and enthusiasm, which allow him to distance himself from the cynical world he lives in. This is shown through his love of bullfighting, fishing and the natural world. These differences allow Jake to see through the superficial attitudes and fragile relationships of the people around him. For example, he tells Cohn in Chapter II: “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another (19)”. Jake means that no matter where one travels to, one’s problems will remain the same. This quote shows that Jake is both an outsider and an insider. He views the world he lives in from its center, but with some objectivity as well. However, although Jake does identify issues in his life, he is either unwilling to or unable to resolve them, therefore he remains in a state of constant insatisfaction.
The novel The Sun Also Rises accurately describes the characters as a part of the “Lost Generation”. This proves that the after-effect of war can make people, like Mike, Brett, and Jake, try to escape the reality of things by indulging in hedonistic behavior. Are their lives likely to regain their meanings and significance in their post-war existence? Will they put together the pieces of their shattered ideals to shattered ideals to eliminate their memories of the war?